So I’ve seen the original Let It Be (1970) as much as the next Beatle fan, maybe once more than I probably wished, because in that case more is less. I never reached the desire to parse and decode the hints displaying the inevitable and even then documented Beatle breakup. It’s chronologically and intriguingly unravelling between The White Album and Abbey Road but dumped like leftovers after Paul’s interview/announcement around the McCartney album he wouldn’t be missing the boys so much.
It's the main attraction of the thing. It’s a grainy car crash that ambles, introducing the deceptively objective Frederick Wiseman “just point and shoot” aesthetic to a wider audience who wasn't ready for it. No talking heads, no Orson Welles. Or so we would be led to believe.
Only later do we all realize how much documentaries lie – the placement of a camera a preemptive editorial intrusion, and every edit an inadvertent act of violence.
It’s a product of its time and the resources at Mr. Lindsay-Hogg's disposal, like the original Star Wars now locked away in aluminum and plastic (or carbonite) on OOP laserdiscs. The lousy feelings are part of the birthing, the myth's been broadcast and once it’s in the can you can change your mind but you can't change the original. Everything would be different if done at another time, by other people, in another circumstance.
New versions don’t erase the originals or really supersede them. They do offer new things to buy. For the completists out there that's the best you can expect.
But 51 years later we have a re-write of the Beatles break-up movie. Like any new version of an old favorite it tried to blunt our skepticism by pretending to be closer to perfect. It’s certainly more attune to our own age. Fifty years on not only has the original audience changed, there’s been 10 million more words written to inform a completely new one. The target hasn’t stopped moving, the rumors have been telephoned so often we don’t recognize where it once belonged and an 8-hour version of Let It Be still won’t be enough. It is however an awfully nice new thing to buy.
Peter Jackson’s edit doesn’t change history after all, no worries you rock’n’rollers, so much as give us more of it. Much more of it. Positioned originally as getting to all the nuance, the ”we laughed a lot” version, it now appears - I haven’t memorized the 1970 film - Jackson’s not only added hours, he’s replaced many events from the original with different coverage as much as possible. He’s writing in fine ink what was only faint pencil shadings before. He knows the general outlines, a mere 81 minutes worth, and proceeds to add 380 minutes of detail work and color correction.
He nods to us with the very first shot, the drum front carried by Mal but adds the slate to authenticate his access from the get. So much coverage they tell us, but with what seems like at least 2 cameras running most times and 10 during the rooftop concert, there’s likely not 57 hours of unique footage as reported but closer 15 to 20 hours total. In other words it’s possible the 8-hour cut could be half of what’s extant. The rest, alternate angles, backs of heads, out of focus?
(The audio’s another story, reportedly over 150 hours worth without corresponding image. And we’ll get to that.)
And it's all been cleaned up and smoothed. More coherently in order even down to a helpful calendar count. As someone who’s read the books, who knows Sulpy and Purple Chick and all three Glyn Johns, the surprise of the thing to me wasn’t so much what’s shockingly new but instead how much is still in it.
It’s not the white-wash. It’s the very definition of a “hang movie.” The flow is the same from Twickenham to Saville Row to the roof. George still walks out (during “Two of Us” but a different one), John’s still pretty sluggish in the early going, and Yoko, ever Yoko, in the corners of the frame knitting. Ringo stares and smokes, but still barely manages to get past 50 words (just), mostly through dint of one conversation near the middle. Paul's the walrus.
It’s still clear they don’t know what they’re doing but at least they talk about that they don’t know what they’re doing. No grain or wrinkles and the audio’s better but boy does one still gets tired of the Twickenham lighting.
Being the most documented music session in history hardcore fans of the period will already expect the flowerpot conversation, Paul calling Linda “Yoko,” the drugs, divorce and a slipping image, songs repeated on the roof, and Dick James about to sell off the catalog. But we don’t use the word “expected” around here. The original’s 5x shorter and surrounded by bad vibes, bad timing, and lawsuits, and the implosions after India. This new version had explicit sign-offs from all surviving members or estates, and still to a surprising extent simply extends what Lindsay-Hogg managed 50 years ago.
The point is the revelations are, to the initiated, restored outtakes rather than sudden reversals of fortune. Looks between them clarify thoughts only hinted at in the tapes. Proof that the tip of the iceberg is sometimes the whole iceberg. These sessions, partly because the project was so fraught, mostly because it was so heavily documented, has only so much it could really rewrite.
There’s ballsy integrity in going for a patience-challenging
8 hours with this minimum of narrative hand-holding. It’s still more Frederick
Wiseman than Michael Moore. Jackson knows the value of simply letting the
camera keep rolling when you got something unique. He's certainly got that. And there's the initial tightrope walk in letting all these strangers into your playpen to watch you
come up with a new record LESS THAN TWO MONTHS AFTER RELEASING A BEST-SELLING DOUBLE ALBUM. Vacations weren't a thing?
What may have more interesting (and fodder for an even longer edit I can’t believe I said that) is what’s still missing.
George ended up pulling his songs from consideration but the decision remains off-screen, not even a subtitle. He becomes Nicky Hopkins for the rest of it, a session hire (and mocking the whole thing by the end trying to out-peacock Ringo, who’s been there the whole time). We get the entire "Daily Sketch" article read aloud (another bold move on Jackson's part) but still can’t know exactly what happened in the kitchen right before George decided to walk. John and Yoko are suffering from the after-effects of a miscarriage (which would help explain the other members’ willingness to suffer her presence) and a heroin addiction (hiding in plain sight). It circles around the problem of Yoko “sitting on an amp” but softens the conflict by insisting she had company up there with Linda and Maureen. We never hear her ominous request for another mike for herself.
Jackson may have us think it’s not his place to do that autopsy. But we hardly see any of Yoko's many vocal interjections and unsolicited advice, beyond a bit of the famous “after George” freak-out. No grain. Everything smooth.
We do get “Taking a Trip to Carolina” on film, complete takes of “No Pakistanis” and “All Things Must Pass.” Jackson’s elegant cheats laying audio over the backs of people’s heads has received much less criticism than Ron Howard’s continuity and sound manipulations in Eight Days a Week. And it turns out Billy Preston was on the roof after all! The most accomplished archival stunt here is how he’s managed to fill out the many footnotes with more scraps and ends, and nods and winks, paying homage to Lindsay-Hogg’s initial aesthetic instead of making it some talking-head mini-series.
And the power dynamics reveal themselves with more time. Paul was never in charge, and he knows it and that's why he's always working so hard at it. George actually has more control than the ostensive leaders. When he puts his foot down everything stops. No one's going to Egypt, of that he makes sure. Ringo's film date is in cement and no one thinks that can be changed either. Glyn Johns seems always this close to being dismissed. And when John speaks, even if it's in monosyllables everyone stops to listen. He's still the leader even when he doesn't want to be there and has no songs.
Sometimes the real story really is in the footnotes. This is like a 900-page novel with 600 pages of filler. The original feels like the Cliff Notes. If you're in the tent this is a bottomless giftcard. Fifty years later the remaining Beatles have given us a longer version of the same thing. An extended alternative take.
The stake-holders dissed on this period for years after it happened and no one was happy, suggesting their winter of discontent had already cool-set even as Glyn Johns tried to embrace the intended vibe (getting back to basics) three times with three different mixes before Spector came in with a new color Apple. Paul was still trying to rewrite the original record himself in 2003 with his own.
It's all too much. Let It Be should have been a double album as well.